Trial of the Chicago 7 is an Electrifying Courtroom Drama, Highlighting Conflicts that Still Exist Today

image courtesy Netflix

Over the past year our nation has been in a state of upheaval. Regardless of on what side of the political spectrum you fall, I think this is something we can all agree on. Coronavirus, lockdowns, the elections, and the police killings of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor which has brought on a new wave of protests around the country and the world. With calls to defund the police at the center of many of the Black Lives Matter protests, with several cities taking concrete actions to meet the demands of the civil rights activists, it seems our nation is starting to ask itself what role do we want police to play in our society, and how should protests be carried out in an effective manner. The latest film from Aaron Sorkin The Trial of the Chicago 7, now streaming on Netflix, shows us that these issues are nothing new, and that American activists have struggled for decades against police oppression and brutality. This movie not only contextualizes our modern conversation about protesting and policing, but it is also quite well made with exceptional editing and great performances from key members of the cast.

This film tells the true story of the Chicago 7, which is often referred to as the Chicago 8 to recognize that Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers, was also placed on trial with the other 7 defendants. The defendants, Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron-Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), who were the founders of the Youth International Party; Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) from the Students for a Democratic Society; Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) and David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) from the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam; Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), were all charged with conspiring to cross state lines to start a riot, and for creating and teaching others to create incendiary devices. Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) was also placed on trial with them, despite only having been in Chicago for a total of four hours before the riots began.

Image Courtesy Netflix

The organizers of the protests turned riots were protesting at the 1968 Democratic convention over the nomination of Hubert Humphry as the democratic party’s candidate, who was a pro-Vietnam war candidate. The film primarily focuses on the trial, which by all accounts was an absolute mess, and mockery of justice. The numerous large personalities in the courtroom during the trial that lasted about half a year allowed members of the cast to shine as they portrayed these larger than life characters.

Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), who was presiding over the trial, was often described as ill-tempered by those who worked with him in a professional capacity. He would consistently forget the names of the people involved in the trial and showed considerable favor to the prosecution, while citing the defendants and the defendant’s council with 175 counts of contempt of court. Frank Langella does an excellent job of portraying the combative judge, as he would formally and quietly dismiss evidence that would all but exonerate the defendants, and then explode with anger when challenged on his conduct. The film includes many of the worst offences to justice he committed during the trial, such as binding and gagging Bobby Seale in the courtroom, and left out others such as sentencing Abbie Hoffman to seven days in jail for laughing in court.

The eight defendants, after realizing they were in a kangaroo court, began to fight back against the judge using petty pranks and outbursts. As there were dozens of these minor acts of civil disobedience in court, Sorkin had to pick and choose certain ones over others. Ones that were left out include Abbie Hoffman insulting the judge numerous times in Yiddish, yelling “You schtunk. Schande vor de goyim,” (you stinker, fronting for the gentile), as both Hoffmans were Jewish. While the judge attempted to make clear that he was not related to Abbie he jumped up and yelled “Father, why have you forsaken me.”

Image Courtesy Netflix

This film had the potential to be very confusing, as there is so many events and so much historical backstory that needed to be depicted. Sorkin expertly handles this in the beginning, with a montage of real life historical footage setting the scene. The assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr, Bobby Kennedy. Lyndon Johnston ordering more troops to Vietnam. News reports during the 1968 Democratic Convention talking about the police state forming outside. All of this is cut together with the docudrama footage where all the key defendants are working separately to plan the protests. Sorkin keeps the energy high by cutting quickly between shots of the different advocate groups, often allowing sentences to be completed by the different groups across cuts. He uses Abbie Hoffman’s stand up to narratively include key exposition, which allowed him to provide interesting narration.

Sorkin continues to use this technique through the courtroom scenes as well but starts to incorporate scenes from the riots as the trial starts to heat up. As court scenes where there is a lot of talking but not much action can often come off as dull, this strategy effectively added energy to those scenes that was much needed.

This movie’s release was very timely, as I discussed at the beginning of this review. It is easy to view our current historical situation as one devoid of context or history. Films like this are important because it reminds us that our current conversations are part of a larger one. Critiques of the court systems, police, and the constant critique from those in power over how those out of power should express their frustration are central to the American story. This film shows black and white images of police brutalizing protesters, running “Daley Dozers” (police vehicles equipped with barbed wire nets) into crowds of people, at a time when similar footage is shot by cell phones in color. We are asking ourselves as a nation what role do police play in turning protests into riots while that same questions in central to the plot of this film, and to the real-life trial. It also reminds us that the Democratic party has always fought their progressive wing far more than it has ever fought against conservative policy.

The connection between our current conversations and the history of this country cannot be separated, and this film works to build that bridge.  

-Patrick Bernas